Kashgar, the Khunjerab Pass, Eid ul-Fitr, and the Way Back

Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China.  In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities.  To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”

We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi.  I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China.  Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.

After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search.  The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing.  Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri,  and a livestock market with no livestock.  I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room.  It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.

Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque

In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town.  Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia.  The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it.  The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage.  Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.

A Hall of Doorways through Walls
A Hall of Doorways through Walls
You Can't Come In
You Can't Come In
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
A Silk Road Homefront
A Silk Road Homefront
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China

Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet.  We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh.  Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive.  He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass.  This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan.  The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB.  We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.

We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway.  The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast.  We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic.  After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint.  In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has.  The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.

Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway

I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar.  We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch.  Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites.  The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges.  This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music.  It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling.  After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept.  By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.

Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow

The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass.  The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram.  Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley.  To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border.  Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan.  One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt.  When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long.  The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends.  The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track.  We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit.  I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared.  Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them.  One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry.  After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.

The Border Permit
The Border Permit
Station South of Tashkurgan
Station South of Tashkurgan
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
The Sign Says it All
The Sign Says it All

Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.

We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share.  After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar.  Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street.  At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.”  Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?

I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque.  I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place.  This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran.  It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer.  This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.

The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque

After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day.  At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco.  We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night.  Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty.  At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again.  Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day.  I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink.  Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy.  In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities.  Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.

The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates.  Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative!  My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end.  I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year.  Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/prestonrhea/5016453503/” title=”_mg_3403.cr2 by preston.rhea, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4152/5016453503_989b15c418.jpg” width=”500″ height=”399″ alt=”_mg_3403.cr2″ /></a>

Finish Line Ahead

I will blog more about Spain later, when I have my photos all nice and loaded up.

The other night I was at Trader Joe’s, just getting some milk. I noticed there were several long-ish lines (for Trader Joe’s anyway) at the checkout counters, but the one at the left end of the occupied counters had one person who was about to be done, so I went to it. As soon as I settled there, a man’s voice to the left asked, “Are you a philosopher?”

I looked and where I thought there was an unmanned counter there was a worker, with no line in front of him. I walked and I said, “Not yet anyway.” He replied while looking me in the eye and taking my groceries, “I hope not. Because if you can’t find the free check-out counter in the grocery store, you’ll never find the truth.”

He continued as he rang me up, “And you know, most people think that the truth, it’s like rays of light that shine down from above.” He paused as he looked at me deeper, not really leaning in but pulling me somewhat closer with his eyes. “But you will not find the truth as revelation. If you want to find the truth, you have to walk through the darkness. In the depths of the darkness where no one likes to tread is where the truth lies.” He bagged my last item and I walked out the door.

I think that statement is profoundly true. When I was still a Christian, one of the aspects of Jesus that I most sought to replicate and admire (and admittedly I still do) was the part where he “ate with sinners.” This had a true effect on my understanding and interpretation of the faith and the way of life, but many of the authority figures around me often dismissed this aspect somewhat when I would try to explain it, or at the least they rarely encouraged it.

At this point it should be noted that this entry has been written over three separate periods, each time with me meaning to finish it, but always getting interrupted before my thoughts finished. Here’s some more:

I’ve been working on getting the sort of ideal traineeship in China: a year in a fundamentally non-Western country, a place where I can learn a major world language, working in renewable energy and utilizing somewhat, but not overwhelmingly, engineering. I have been in talks with a company but it’s slowing down, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work out. So I am expanding my traineeship search. I’m probably going to apply to MindValley, which would be so off the chain, and a couple of other places. We’ll see – main thing is to get out into a worthwhile thing for my own interests and development, and to wait out this economic thing. I like to read fivethirtyeight a lot because Nate Silver does a good job of making statistically interesting projections and analyses of the economic situation, which is hard to understand, at least as much as I would like to understand it – which is profoundly deeply.

Very soon I’ll be done with GT and then I think people will see someone return who hasn’t been here in a while – a calmer, more amicable me. My own mother tells me how much less happy I seem now than I did before college, and with an awesome trip to be taken in May with people I really want to be with and the prospect of a year of new developments, I think my mind will sufficiently rest and recharge itself, along with my soul.

Voodoo Chile (Well I Stand Up Next To A Mountain)

Although it may take me forever to pinpoint just where this hero’s journey began, the place I can most conclusively locate it was when I was on the Youth Council of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. At the time, although I was certainly into something more like liberation theology than the complacent orthodoxy of most of my peers (and indeed that preached by the establishment of the religion itself), I was an eager and willing participant in this, my first serious foray into organizational responsibility. It did of course circle in no throwaway relation to the society and politics surrounding Camp Sumatanga, where the meetings were held and where the NAC held its summer camps – at which I had been both a repeat camper and a repeat counselor.

But we always discussed the circles – inner circles, outer circles, establishment. I recognized that I was on the very fringes of the inner circle, but even this placed me (at the most inclusive) somewhere in the “fifth” circle (where first is the centroid) of the society of the NAC youth, and of Camp Sumatanga. I enjoyed the experiences I had there, and the things I learned, and the friends I made. But I always recognized that there was just plain something wrong about those circles. And I could only talk honestly about that to a few people without being replied to with hurt and confusion. Inside jokes, experiences I couldn’t share in or wouldn’t be included in (and hardly just me), stories and legends that formed around individuals. I was out.

Maybe too by choice. I always kept my focus out of being a part of those circles, and rather on focusing on either what I had to do as a part of the youth council or simply on spreading liberation, deepening my challenges into my own spiritual beliefs and those of others, doing thankless good in the world. I wasn’t playing any of those political or social games, I was just trying to do what I believed was the right thing to do.

As I grew older, neared high school graduation, and learned more about how to deal both in my own life and as a leader in other organizations, I came to recognize that my time there was over, and I began to recognize that the problem there was two-fold. One of the problems had to do with piety and organized religion, and I think no further explanation needs to go in there. I recognize that time now as a key initial point of my eventual rejection of organized religion.

The other problem had to do with the way the thing in itself was organized. The implicit allowance of politics to seep in. Some people staying longer than others, and some personalities being lifted up and preserved and others being ignored and pushed out, even involuntarily. Maybe that is what the youth council needs, but it took that experience for me to recognize the problems produced therein.

In life, my chosen path as I see it now is to be a flattener of hierarchies and an exposer of truth – even a forcer of environments where, simply put, facts kill lies and plurality prevents dynasties. When those environments exist, I don’t have to take it upon myself to expose the truth or force in the rays of light from the other side of the fence. It happens already because there will be enough people to uphold that. What is key in any of those environments is for people to appreciate the open and free environment they are in so they can take their own hero’s journey, for the only real truth is the truth that one learns of his own accord. See it here:

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The same holds true for anything in our lives, anything worth knowing and holding dear, or worth fighting against, or worth protecting or changing or growing or leaving.

That is why I am doing my part for AIESEC in the United States. We have already tried, as generations before us have tried, to restore pluralism and real open dialogue within the stystem. But it took those failures for people to know something in their hearts, including even me, that we should have known all along: you don’t end dynasties by talking them out of the throne.

But I hope that talking is all we have left to do.